Interview: John FernandezViper. For Dodge fans, it has come to mean as much as Cobra did to Shelby enthusiasts. A decade ago, Dodge introduced its long-fanged serpent to the masses, seriously affecting how things were done. For instance, platform teams of individuals in different automotive disciplines united and designed vehicles that revolutionized the structure of the company's employees; that came from Dodge Viper's different way of doing things. Franklin Delano Roosevelt stated December 7th was a date that would live in infamy. Now 60 years later to the day, it may become memorable to Chrysler enthusiasts for another reason. In 2001, December 7 was the day DaimlerChrysler's new Performance Vehicles Operations, or PVO, was formally recognized.
The idea was to create a new engineering team combining the Chrysler Group's specialty vehicle and motorsports know-how into a single profitable enterprise. Modeled in some regards on Germany's Mercedes-AMG, which does high-end factory vehicle conversions for that market, and with former AMG Chief Executive Officer Wolfgang Bernhard as its champion (Bernhard is now the Chief Operating Officer at DaimlerChrysler Corporation), the PVO dream gained momentum during 2001.
Its first formal vehicle release (following final work on the new Viper platform) is the turbocharged Neon-based SRT-4, already in the pilot stage and available to the public in 2003. There is the Ram SRT-10, slated for release even sooner, and long-range planning includes a plethora of performance cars the likes of which we've not seen before, even in the musclecar era. Every PVO release will be the equivalent of a Hurst Hemi A-Body; performance is the reason for its creation and existence. Beyond that, these cars will be known for their as-built racing technology with a vast array of people and technology behind each product.
PVO is based out of a corporate building on Featherstone Road, about a mile from the towering DaimlerChrysler Tech Center (DCTC) in Auburn Hills, Michigan. PVO takes up about 40 percent of this building, sharing space with fleet services, a factory training center, and a call center. It encompasses a large garage area and fabricating shop; CATIA rapid prototyping capability; various departments for chassis, powertrain, electrical, and body development and engineering; conference rooms; and laboratories. Powertrain and vehicle testing are handled here at Auburn Hills, on the company's Chelsea and Arizona Proving Grounds, and at the Nelson Ledges race facility in Ohio, where the LeMans Viper engines were endurance-tested.
Recently, we had a chance to sit down with the man given the keys to the corporate candy store, John Fernandez, whose official title is Director of Performance Vehicle Operations. Fernandez has been with Chrysler since 1969, possessing a wealth of experience and knowledge, yet maintaining a cutting-edge attitude about what PVO is going to become in the months and years ahead. He recently granted Mopar Muscle an exclusive interview, which is printed in part here.
Mopar Muscle: Let's begin with how and why PVO got going and what role you played in it.
John Fernandez: PVO's basis came from Team Viper and Team Prowler, formerly called SVE (Specialty Vehicle Engineering), because we knew that something would need to be done once the next-generation Viper was completed. We also knew the Prowler would be going away; we just didn't know when. So the teams had a sort of town meeting and said, "If we want to stay viable, we need some other things to do." So we talked about where we wanted this to go and our options as a new group.
This was initially hard on some of the people because they had been with Team Viper since the beginning. The reality was that once the new car was done, it would not need 129 people-70 of them would be going home. That's why we decided to become something more.
At first, the main idea was that we would be doing customization and just special vehicles. As that developed, however, we saw the benefits of expanding on our involvement in Mopar Performance Parts to allow us to market PVO-based equipment, and also having the technical/engineering side of the company's motorsports programs under one roof, which will give PVO a lot of respectability. We've won championships, we've won LeMans, we've won manufacturer awards, we've now won Daytona; you can use those things to put a halo effect on the group, to point to the rest of what the group is producing and building.
As we talked these things over during those six to eight months, our biggest struggle was finding someone on the corporate level who would say, "Yes, go do that." We got so frustrated with it that we finally decided to just do something, do a project to jumpstart the idea and sort of force our way into it. That was the Dodge SRT-4. That project really extended our resources; we probably needed 150 people to do it, but we all worked harder and took on the work.
Our big break came when I had a chance meeting with Wolfgang Bernhard, who is in charge over here and had been with Mercedes AMG. He called me up to his office so we could discuss it further, and he said, "Yes, this is what we want you to do. We want you to take over Mopar Performance Parts and we want this to be a profit center." He massaged our ideas, we created a plan, and it then had to go through the corporate Personnel and Organization committee, which is how it is recognized as a new entity with a corporate charter. That was formalized on December 7, and we were also given the resources we needed. Now, where we are today is getting additional people in place; these will probably come from inside the company, and my job right now is figuring out how to extract them from five other vice presidents who may not want to let them go! (laughs)
Beyond that, my primary job is making sure the people have the resources they need to get the job done. Once that is done, we will start to actualize what we see PVO becoming. Motorsports is ready, Viper is already there, and we will start to expand on the other products like the SRT10 by getting the manpower behind that.
As you look around here, you will see a lot of younger people; I've probably got 30-40 percent of my people under the age of 30, and they bring a lot of energy and creativity to the process. They bring a lack of experience which helps them make the point to some of my older guys that just because it didn't work 25 years ago does not mean it won't work today; even though they may be wrong, you've got to listen to them. In the end, we've got a blending of younger talent with people who do have 20-25 years experience; this is what they love to do. All I have done is get them under one roof.
MM: You mentioned the plan; how does PVO fit into the corporate structure?JF: We are a profit center; we have a five-year plan that we need to adhere to if we are going to be effective, and meeting those goals is a big part of my responsibilities. Now, Motorsports Business Operations, who handles the sponsorship deals and the business and marketing of motorsports, is under Jim Julow. In other words, if Mopar Performance Parts wants to do something related to image like a car sponsorship, Jim handles that aspect of motorsports. Where PVO comes in is that anytime someone in the company wants to do a motorsports program, whether it's Winston Cup racing or go-kart racing, it becomes our job from a technical standpoint to make sure the teams racing have the best possible equipment and technology available to them.
Right now, we have Winston Cup, the Craftsman Truck Series, and NHRA. The Viper Competition Coupe is another example; it is a purpose-built race car that we are assembling and selling for racing purposes. This is similar to a program that Porsche has, and we will sell that through Mopar Performance Parts. Dodge has also announced their sponsorship of NASCAR's weekly program; we don't have an off-the-shelf engine program for that style of racing yet, and we have talked with Jim so that we can develop an engine directly for those racers.
One other thing to understand is that PVO's motorsports involvement is not a profit center but a budget item; once a motorsports-related project is approved, I am given a budget to do it, but it is not tied directly to profit like the other aspects of PVO are. For instance, I will say to them, "OK, if you want to go Winston Cup racing, we will need this much money to do it. Then the question is whether you want to run up front or just be in the field, because that will have a bearing on how much it will cost."
MM: How does Mopar Performance fit into the plan?JF: There are a lot of things I would like to do at Mopar Performance Parts. Presently, that effort is directed at the '60s crowd, big hardware and all that, but there is a whole segment out there in the sport compact/import market that we want to address. Today's young hot-rodder, who wasn't brought up on V8 power, is more likely to have a 2-liter four-cylinder in a Neon or Honda. We are seriously going after that marketplace; that was why we did the SRT-4 first; and we think we can have a big impact in that marketplace.
We're going after them with aftermarket parts; we're going to sponsor some drag cars. We are going to put contingency funds up in the road race and rally sanctions. We are looking at aftermarket packages that we can offer through Mopar Performance Parts, packages that would be based on the changes that created the SRT-4, which would allow other kids to take those parts and put them on their own Neon. We are also looking at going back; there are a lot of older Neons out there that are still good cars. We are planning for those parts now.
MM: Dodge has the R/T model in its lineup; how do vehicles from PVO differ from those?JF: The R/T lineup is the performance-image version of the Dodge, while PVO vehicles are much more oriented toward the serious performance enthusiast and targeted in a very specific manner. Not everybody wants a high-performance vehicle, so they both have their place. The R/T models are like shotguns; a PVO vehicle is like a rifle; it's for the outer 3 percent fringe of buyers who value performance above all else. So, in the Dodge Performance Area of PVO, we don't compromise anything related to performance; everything is done with that as the goal.
As a result, we sometimes have heated debates on what we need to do. With the SRT-4, there was discussion that we put a killer sound system in it. Not that the kids aren't into the radios, but based on the dollars we could spend and our target price, we would have had to sacrifice engine performance or chassis performance to do that. In the end, we decided that would be something they could do themselves rather than make it part of the car. They will have a great basic package with the engine, and they can add the individual bells and whistles that they want to it.
MM: The readership of Mopar Muscle is primarily based around older cars. How does PVO attract them?JF: There are people out there that I talk with who are Mopar people through and through, and we want to keep them that way. We are taking a hard look at Mopar Performance Parts; we know we have issues with availability and delivery. We know that we are going to have to make some price adjustments to be more competitive. We also have to address those issues related to quality. One of the things we are going to do with Mopar Performance Parts is increase the staff; up until now, there have been only a handful of people running that, so we will be increasing those resources.
MM: What about rear-wheel drive cars beyond the trucks and the Viper?JF: We do have a plan for upcoming rear-wheel-drive releases, but at this time, we are focused primarily on vehicles like SRT-4 and SRT-10, where we are closer to production. One thing we have done already is look at all of the different platforms' planning for the next 5-7 years. In terms of powertrains, we want to eventually have a PVO four-cylinder engine, a PVO six-cylinder engine, a PVO eight-cylinder engine, and a PVO 10-cylinder engine. We will upgrade other areas of the platform as needed; with the SRT-4, we upgraded the brake system because the car would be faster. With the SRT-10 models, we are looking at the entire driveline since that vehicle will be getting 500 horsepower and parts will have to be sufficient for that. Incidentally, the warranties on PVO cars will still be the same as other models; even the Viper is on the 7-year/70,000 mile program.
MM: From a personnel standpoint, this is sort of a new experiment. How has that transition been?JF: In one of our town hall meetings, Wolfgang Bernhard came in and talked about PVO and what his dreams were for it. Then, at the North American Auto Show, Jim Schroer (Executive Vice President, DaimlerChrysler Sales and Marketing) got up and before he began talking about new products or anything else, he talked about what PVO was and what we were going to be doing here. I think those things really woke a lot of people up about how serious we as a corporation are about this group.
Moreover, the organization has real plans for us. That was always a bit of a problem for Team Viper and Team Prowler; the cars became bigger than the people building them. With PVO, we want the people to be seen as the reason for our product's creations and execution; PVO will be identified with performance on any platform.
We stress here that when we go racing, it is a whole team effort. There may be a few people who are more visible, but everyone involved in that effort can take pride in their contribution to it. It's not just the guys who are actually there when the racing happens.
It was interesting to me at the L.A. Auto Show to see that people were really taken aback, saying "Hey, you really are going to go after this import market." That's the idea. When we first started producing Neon, we were building 300,000 units and had two shifts running at Belvidere [Illinois]; that has gone down, but the Neon is still as good a car as any in its price range. Cars like the SRT-4 will be built to make that vehicle name and design stand out. In that regard, we also see PVO bringing that halo effect to the entire vehicle line, just as Viper has done and does for the Dodge nameplate.
MM: Who do you see as PVO's peers or competition?JF: John Coletti at Ford SVT with the Cobra Mustang and Lightning truck has done a very good job of having an organization that is visible. At GM, there are visible projects but it seems to be done by different people; you really can't tell whose doing what there. They're trying to get focused right now. In Europe, it is Mercedes AMG; they know exactly what they are doing to position their product, and they are very successful at it. The Japanese have done a little bit, but most of it has been done on the outside through aftermarket support. One thing Honda does do that we would like to do is use our motorsports involvement to show what we are capable of, to expose our products in advertising and to the public through racing successes in a bigger way.
MM: Do you see PVO building complete vehicles from the ground up?JF: We are a smaller platform team. Viper was about 40 people; we have about 120; but a really big platform might be 700 or more people. It must be remembered that the larger platforms have a broader range of responsibilities with a product, and they create the baseline that we will work on for performance.
Right now, our ground-up program is the Viper. That does not mean that in the future we won't be doing other ground-up programs, but once this next Viper is done, PVO will be focused more on customizations. From a business and profit standpoint, that is the best way to make PVO work, and our long-range planning spells that out. If the corporation desires us to do something from the ground up, it will need to be supported with additional resources. We make money, but we don't make that kind of money. Once the Crossfire is out there, we may be called on for something unique, but that is in the future. If it is U.S.-based, we will do it here. Regardless, we would not do it unilaterally; it would be something that inspires senior management and makes economic sense.
At this point, we finished up and John showed us around the building. There are smaller labs where component designs can be tested; while not as big as DCTC, John appreciates having the PVO Group in its own environment where it's not lost among the huge confines of the larger facility. In the Engineering Garage, the pilot version of the SRT-4 had just arrived, while various Viper prototypes were visible. From his interaction with people, we could tell he's well-known and well-liked in his new role. He left us with a parting story about how PVO is adapting as it grows. In one corner of the garage was a large wooden mock-up covered with wires and hardware. John pointed to it.
"This is a wooden buck that we used on the new Viper to work out the wiring. This allows the engineers to figure out what wires go where and how they will be routed without having to get in and out of a car; it's built to the car's dimensions. We were just getting ready to start engine testing on the Viper and we couldn't get over into CTC because all the dynos were scheduled out. My guys thought about it, and someone said, 'We have these old chassis over here; let's just wire the engine up and we can get some baselines done.' So they took the new engine, dropped it into the chassis, rolled it over here, rigged up some exhaust stuff, and made some umbilical cord-like wires. It worked, and they never missed a beat."
And the beat goes on...